Soccer, or as the rest of the world calls it, football, is by far the most important sport in Europe. Unfortunately for the French, the football teams of their country are not what they used to be. You really can’t compare France’s situation regarding this sport with that of other European countries such as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands or, more recently, Spain. Because the French don’t like the idea of not being the center of attention, they decided to focus more on other sports where they are still very good. The best example is handball.
My host mother is in love with this sport, which she used to play for 14 years. Be the games men’s or women’s, junior or senior, she has to see them all. And apparently, she also has to drag me with her to the court or in front of the TV whenever there is a game.
I wasn’t particularly excited with the idea the first time I went with her to the Palais du sport (Palace of sport) to see a handball game. She explained the rules, and I came to the conclusion that it’s just like football, only there aren’t so many players and you use your hands instead of your feet. Then I realized something else was just like football: the support from the audience.
In the States, people who go to games cheer individually. In Europe and Latin America (and I imagine in Africa as well), the supporters take encouraging their favourite team to another level. The stadiums, arenas, courses, courts, etc. have special areas where the fans (or fanatics) sit. They sing songs they themselves compose, they scream, they wave their flags, they use trumpets and drums.
I experienced this frenzy last Sunday, when I went to the court to see the final of the 22nd Men’s Handball World Championship between France and Denmark (kind of like the World Cup, but held every year). Obviously, it was not played in my small town; we just went to see it live on a huge screen. The room was packed, but luckily my host mom knew that would to happen, so we went there 45 minutes before the match started in order to find good seats. There were a lot of people waving little flags or displaying them painted on their faces. There were even some guys dressed in France’s colours wearing silly wigs – call them the mascots if you wish.
I found it a little silly at the beginning to applaud when the players got on the court, just as I find it silly to clap my hands when I’m in Kresge looking at a screen that shows an event taking place at the same time in Harbach. I got used to it after a while and as the match progressed, I, as well as the rest of the people there, got more and more excited and nervous. Instead of two halves, the teams had to play four because they finished the second one tied. Generally, France would score and Denmark would come back and score again a few seconds later. You really didn’t know who was going to win until the last minute, when France managed to have two goals more than the other team, scoring one of them two seconds before the end of the game. Following all that come-and-go was an extremely nerve-wracking experience.
When the match finished, everybody was applauding and screaming like crazy. They also started singing “On est le champion,” the French version of “We are the Champions.” It was an absolutely incredible environment and I didn’t think I could be so patriotic—and for a country that isn’t even my own.
My host mother asked me if I wanted to accompany her to a match on Wednesday. Even if I know I’ll kill a significant part of my neurons during it, my answer was a big “Yes!” I don’t have the chance to be in such a united mass of people often, and after all, stress can be beneficial at times.